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A new beginning to tackle the global emergency

Education to give citizens the tools to self-determination, while science and innovation points to possible solutions

In 2000, the UNESCO Earth Charter opened with this lucid preamble: “We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise.” It then continued: “To move forward we must recognise that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace…”.

The charter concluded: “As never before in history, common destiny beckons us to seek a new beginning.” Fifteen years later, we face the deterioration of ecological conditions and the widening of social inequality. We are also confronted with the marginalisation of ethical standards and of the democratic multilateralism that is absolutely essential to operate the much needed radical changes of direction.

Shift in values

Clearly, neoliberalism has replaced the United Nations (UN) system by an ineffective plutocratic groups, such as the G-6, G-7, G-8, G-20. We are now confronted with potentially irreversible processes, potentially leading us to a point of no return. It is therefore essential that the scientific, academic, artistic and intellectual communities, all together, mobilise humanity.

As humanity now consists of world citizens, they all have to urgently implement the pressing radical changes required to preserve the conditions that make Earth habitable. This is now possible because, unlike previously, people can increasingly express themselves and be aware of the latest developments on a global scale, thanks to digital technology. Indeed, until a few years ago, people were born, lived and died within a few square kilometres. They were confined intellectually and physically. They were invisible, frightened, obedient and silent beings.

Above all, what is happening now is that women–who are the “cornerstone” of the “new era,” in the words of President Mandela–have started to occupy the role that they deserved in the decision-making process. This is happening by virtue of the faculties that women themselves inherently posses, which makes them so distinctive.

Knowledge-based solution

The trouble is that markets–where greed fuels the quest for large short-term profits–have displaced the moral and political foundations of an endogenous, sustainable and human development. It is therefore urgent to transition from an economy of speculation, production delocalisation and war, to an economy of social and human development, based on knowledge.

Enters science, necessary to prevent or alleviate human suffering, to provide everyone with a dignified life, to meet on a global scale the main priorities established by the UN, in the form of the Sustainable Development Goals; these consist of providing food for all; access to drinking water; quality health services; care for the environment; education and peace. It is unacceptable–regardless of the perspective–that more than 20,000 people die of hunger every day while military expenses amount to €3,000 million.

Humanity can no longer look the other way, distracted and rendered gregarious by the huge power of the media.


Instead, humanity must act “freely and responsibly”–and this could be facilitated by education, according to the first article of the Constitution of UNESCO. The objective is to achieve freedom to act under one’s own reflections as well as the full realisation of the distinctive qualities of the human species: to think, to imagine, to anticipate, to innovate, to create!

The four “avenues” that lead to education which make us “free and responsible” are: learning to be, learning to know, learning to do and learning to live together. These were stated in the report Education in the XXI Century, which I commissioned in 1992 as Director General of UNESCO to the then President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors. I would add that ‘learning to be entrepreneurial’ is also key. This is because risk without knowledge is dangerous, but knowledge without risk is useless. Daring to know–Sapere Aude, as stated in the Oxford County emblem itself–matters, but, at the same time, knowing to dare is also crucial.

Each human being able to create, to design his or her own future and to contribute to our common destiny, represents hope. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in a speech in June 1963, indicated that to achieve what may not seem achievable today, it is necessary to believe that there is no challenge beyond the reach of the creative capacity of the human species.

This is precisely where the investment in research, development and innovation becomes relevant. It will make it possible for people to express themselves without restrictions, to propose and to protest, to participate in and strengthen the democratic process, so fragile today. It will also facilitate the transition from a top-down hierarchical culture–including domination, violence and war–to a culture of encounter, conciliation, alliance and peace.

Historic moment

We are at a turning point in history, where words have more weight than brute force. Since the beginning of time, the dominant male power has been abiding by the motto:Si vis pacem, para bellum–if you want peace, prepare for war. Today, however, we could instead follow: Si vis pacem, para Verbum–if you want peace, sharpen up your words. This approach gives the power back to everyone, instead of confining it in the hands of a few, to decide what tomorrow will hold.

Faced with potentially irreversible processes, we must act responsibly, without delay. There are already enough warning signs.

Now, it is time to apply remedies before it is too late. In the Joint Declaration to tackle the social and ecological emergency, published in September 2015, together with my co-signatories, we recommended urgently convening a special session of the UN General Assembly to address issues, which could soon reach points of no return. These include extreme poverty and migratory flows; environmental degradation; nuclear threat and terror. All countries need to be united against these global challenges.

It is absolutely imperative that, now that we can finally express ourselves, we do not remain silent, let alone be accomplices of such challenges. A felony by silence. It is now up to the younger generation to raise their voice. And, in a great outcry, to make proposals for radical transitions and fundamental changes, which cannot be postponed.

El por-venir está por-hacer–the future has yet to happen. It is necessary to invent the future, to push forward the great mobilisation that will make it possible to adopt, in time, the corrective measures, which knowledge tells us, are urgently advised.

Many of the impossibilities of today can become bright beacons of the realities of tomorrow. The current generation must speak out and make proposals to find solutions. At stake, is the fate of their descendants. We should act now to avoid being judged in the words of Albert Camus: “I contempt them because, they are able to do so much, yet they dare so little.”

Federico Mayor

Federico is the chairman of the Culture of Peace Foundation (Fundación Cultura de Paz), Madrid, Spain, and former general director of UNESCO.

Featured image credit: via Shutterstock

EuroScientist is grateful to Amaya Moro Martin for translating this opinion piece from Spanish into English.

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